Breaking the Silence
How we can overcome the fear of reporting workplace harassment
Isaac Newton’s Third Law on Motion states “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We apply this principle to the way society is shaped: From job performance to criminal justice, written and unwritten rules prescribe how certain behaviour must be incentivised, deterred or punished. One essential step to fulfilling this basic dynamic of society is reporting. If an action goes unnoticed, the appropriate reaction cannot be applied.
Reporting sexual or gender harassment at the workplace is essential in order to find the appropriate response and create a safe working environment. But our research has shown how difficult it is to actually take action against harassment.
The reasons for not reporting are plenty and varied, but upon examining them we can outline three areas that are in dire need of improvement if we effectively want to fight this everpersisent issue.
The first step towards a solution is recognising that there is a problem. This is why information is key. In a survey we conducted amongst a diverse group of people, around 40% stated that they had experienced sexual or gender harassment at work.
Out of those who stated they had not experienced either, or were not sure whether they had, 37% had experienced a sexual comment made about their body, 42.7% had experienced an inappropriate compliment, 32.6% had experienced a joke about their intellectual capacity based on gender and 24% had experienced derogatory slurs about their gender.
The discrepancy between the harassment people experience and the ability to recognise such behaviour as harassment shows why information is the first step. All workplaces must offer their employees means to educate themselves and to learn to recognise unacceptable behaviour, both in others and in themselves.
Throughout our research, one of the reasons that people do not report instances of sexual or gender harassment was that at the time they did not consider the incident serious enough to report. Many expressed that in retrospect they wished they had reported the experience.
Sexual and gender harassment, even if the comments seem minor or humorous, can have lasting negative effects on the work experience of those affected. Anxiety, stress, and a loss of feeling of safety can even force a person to leave their workplace. This is why educating employees of all levels about harassment and about the appropriate reporting channels, is imperative.
This leads to the second area that companies desperately need to improve. Of those people who stated that they had not reported an incident, 17% expressed that the reason was because they did not know where or how to report it. An additional 13% thought it was pointless to report because they would not be believed. Furthermore, 11% did not report for a fear of being labelled and it affecting their reputation. And 3% stated they felt ashamed about the incident. All these reasons could be mitigated by implementing a safe, accessible and comprehensive reporting channel.
Employees need to know where and how they can report sexual or gender harassment. They need to know that they will not be judged, ridiculed or punished for reporting an incident. They need to know that the information given will be treated with confidentiality. They need to know that they will be taken seriously, and treated with respect and empathy. And they need to know that reporting this painful, personal experience will lead to change.
That is why our first product at Metta Space is the creation of a highly secure and anonymous reporting application for employees. We know that the first step to eradicating sexual harassment at the workplace is to ensure that reporting can be done in a safe, efficient and transparent manner. Instead of promoting the silence, we want to break it by producing channels which focus on easy reporting processes that connect the employer with the employee.
All incidents of sexual or gender harassment are different. The attitude behind the comments or actions changes from person to person. Similarly, the way they are perceived and the effect they have on the psyche of those affected are different. This is why there cannot be a single cross-board response for all instances of harassment. Coming back to Newton, companies need to work out a way to find the appropriate reaction to the actions.
13% of respondents in our survey stated they did not report harassment because they thought it pointless: No one would listen, nothing would change. But others also expressed concern for the person who had harassed them, not wanting them to suffer the repercussions.
This is why companies need to establish a multi-layered, flexible and transparent system of responses to sexual or gender harassment. They need to take the experiences and opinions of their employees into account and find individual solutions for each case.
In the struggle against sexual and gender harassment, incentivising and encouraging reporting is the first and most relevant step. Only then can those affected make their voices heard, and solutions can be found.
Written By: Anna Hattig, Research Ambassador at Metta Space
Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space